Monday, April 11, 2011

Assessing Value: More Than “I Know What I Like”

In my postPricing Artwork: Thinking, Making, Marketing + Vision.” I addressed value and pricing from the artist’s perspective.  Today I’d like to approach value and price from the collector’s perspective and talk about Intention, the Educated Buyer, Experience & Knowledge, and Tradition vs. Trendy.

To begin, let’s distinguish Intention. Are you someone wishing to purchase a casual piece of art, perhaps something to brighten the breakfast area or children’s bedroom, or are you someone looking for a piece that you expect to own for a long time and place in a main living area?  Perhaps you are both. 

Unless we are buying solely for investment purposes, most of us buy art because we love the piece or the final look of our space when it is in place. Rarely does one have the luxury of not considering their budget, so Intention, is something to be intentionally clear about.

If you are going to buy a casual piece and you know your budget, you may easily find just what you want in the giclee of a fine original that would otherwise be too expensive for the end use. Perhaps you would find a good choice of an original piece at a student show (where the prices may reflect promise but lack of experience & skill), or at a weekend street show (where there is usually a wide range of price and quality available). There are many retail stores selling inexpensive prints framed and ready to hang.  Of these sources, only in the choice of student work is there the possibility of an increase in value as time goes on, but it is very uncertain at best. 

If, on the other hand, you are looking to make a more serious investment in art (and here I am not speaking about the upper echelon of collector who may be buying Famous Dead Men art, but of the person who loves art, wants to buy work that has lasting value, is well crafted and which he/she feels is good value for the money.  If you are this person, there may be some homework to do before you decide on a purchase.  Homework? For art, you ask?  Well, would you run out and buy a car or washer, a computer or flat screen without doing your homework first?  So, yes, there is homework if you want to be a confident and educated buyer.

Years ago, traveling in Italy, I fell head over heels in love with olive oil.  Returning home, I found myself disappointed in the olive oil I would buy in the supermarkets.  It just never tasted the same.  Then, there were not the myriad choices, only two or three brands and not the interest in olive oil as a health food as there is now.  My disappointed palette adjusted.  It wasn’t until a good friend gave me some olive oil she had brought from her mother’s village in Calabria that I remembered the glorious taste of Italy.  My friend began to educate me on the differences in olive oil.  Like the distinctions in fine wines, an olive oil can make or break a salad of fresh spring greens or crusty rustico bread.  It is the same with art. 

It doesn’t matter if you are choosing an oil painting in the traditional style, a contemporary abstract, a mixed media assemblage, mono-print or serigraph, ink drawing or photography, glasswork, bronze, wood, or clay sculpture.  What does matter is how much you know about the medium you want to purchase, and what determines the value, both in the marketplace and by your own personal estimation.  Without having a clear idea of how value is assessed in the marketplace, how can you know if you are paying a fair price?  And how can you feel good about the price you pay if you don’t know to what you, personally, assign value?

A word about market value: schizophrenic.  Are you in New York?  Salisbury, NC?  Boise, ID? Santa Fe? Minneapolis or Detroit, Paris, Hong Kong or Killeen, TX? Or are you on the internet, Craig’s List, Sotheby’s auction or your local flea market?  If you are buying original art, not commercial reproductions or work produced in mass for a commercial market such as many quite large “cottage industries” produce, you would be well advised to understand that where you are buying the work can be almost as important as what you buy.  Are you buying directly from the artist or through a gallery? And what is the relationship between the artist and the gallery?  Does the artist undercut their galleries? Have you seen the artist making deals with other buyers or is he/she firm and consistent with pricing?  Does the artist or the gallery have sales where the prices are slashed? Does the gallery have an open relationship with their artists such as would enable you to meet the artist or does the gallery want to keep you and the artist as far apart as possible?  Do you think your conversations with the artist or the gallery about pricing are straightforward or manipulative, suggestive, or uncomfortable?  These are subjective questions, but I believe they are questions worth asking yourself as you shop for art.  You may be a person who is comfortable with dickering and dealing.  You may not be.  Either is ok.  It’s only important that you understand who you are and what you expect, accept, or refuse in terms of making purchases.

Other more obvious factors of which you want to be aware are high pressure sales techniques, half-truths, exaggerations and outright attempts to disguise or mislead the buyer.  These things seem ubiquitous in our consumer culture.  The pitfalls can be avoided with a little time doing your homework.

Let’s take a look at what makes an educated buyer in regards to art.  I am assuming you don’t want to be taken advantage of.  I certainly don’t!  So, if you know, for example, that you will be looking for a painting for your home, perhaps learning about materials and techniques would be a good place to start. 

Experience and knowledge will cultivate a discerning eye, making you a wiser collector. What is, in 2011, the intrinsic value of oil versus watercolor or acrylic?  In certain parts of the country one sees more of one than the other.  Does that availability have anything to do with the tradition of the area, i.e. traditional east coast and southern towns value oil most?  I see more acrylic used in Chicago, LA and Florida.  Is it because there seems to be more contemporary and abstract work shown in galleries there? Have you been told that it is more difficult to paint in one medium than the other?  I have often been told that of watercolor.  There are so many factors to consider in assessing skill that I find it hard to believe one type of paint should affect the value.  Perhaps then, it’s time for us to find out what other things we should look for.  Drawing ability, composition, color development, brush or palette strokes, and certainly expression are some of these.  Does the work look stiff, is the composition awkward but the color luscious?  Is the draftsmanship of the body graceful but the expression on the face stiff and unnatural?  Are one or two of the artist’s works quite wonderful but the remaining six only mediocre? Lots of questions often lead to more questions and the more questions you ask yourself, the greater the opportunity for you to learn what makes an educated buyer. 

Now that you have decided to better educate yourself about techniques, artists, galleries and materials you can begin to refine your choices of what to actually purchase.  Hopefully you have found a reputable gallery with a sales staff trained in techniques and styles so that when you question a work, you will get an honest answer about the difference, for example, between traditionally done frescos and work which is fresco-like; between a “print” that is a limited edition stone-ground litho and a giclee print of a painting; between gas fired pottery and wood fired pottery; between encaustic paintings and paintings with an encaustic finish.

Learning the why of all these distinctions is what will help you assign value to work.  The distinctions will have certain value in the marketplace.  They may also have a lesser or greater value for you personally.  For example, many years ago I wove a type of tapestry work.  There are traditionally woven tapestries done in the Aubusson or Gobelin style and there are contemporary weaving styles such as the Theo Moorman technique which can result in a painterly finished piece similar in some ways to traditional work.  If you are a textile traditionalist you might assign a greater value to the traditionally woven work, regardless of the finished image.  Every technique and style can be distinguished in a similar way.  A collector may be a person who only buys Aubusson style work.  Another collector may buy only textile work and can encompass traditional and contemporary.

So, how does one decide between contemporary work and traditional work?  Is one more valuable than the other?  Again, think about your intention as a buyer.  Most likely you know immediately if you prefer contemporary work over traditional work, or if you prefer transitional work.  It doesn’t matter – tradition or trendy – or something in between.  The same steps apply – educate yourself as a buyer – ask questions – form opinions based on knowledge of medium, style, skill, emotion and existing market value.  You’ll be headed in the right direction and on an exciting road!

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